A friend has died – Paul Rimovsky. Hearing of a friend’s death always comes as a shock, even when we know they’re sick. Just the day before, I ran into Paul at Rod’s Market … and when you get sad news like that, you try to remember what you said. Hopefully, something uplifting. It’s a reminder that ALL life is precious, and we should never hesitate to tell someone they are loved and appreciated. Today, in honor of Paul’s memory, one from the archives, originally published in the Salina Journal in 2013.
A few miles outside of Concordia, where I’m visiting family.
I’m riding shotgun in a pickup with Paul Rimovsky, retired owner of Tom’s Music store in town. We’re heading to the county dump to drop off scraps from a warehouse that once housed German prisoners of war. A small crew of volunteers is helping to restore the old building to its WW II glory.
Paul and I have more than a few things in common. We’re both retired, both had short stints as elementary school teachers, and we’ve both played piano professionally.
On the drive out to the dump, Paul is telling me stories about the bad old days. He started on the accordion before learning piano. As a child, he played on stage in a program that featured a young magician named John Carson.
Paul treasures a letter from the longtime Tonight Show host in which Carson remembered Paul from their hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska.
In the late 1950’s, popular music experienced a revolution – something called “Rock & Roll.” Paul recalled a gig when the band he played in was almost booed off stage. His band played beautiful music, but it wasn’t rock & roll. After a few awkward moments, the band was asked to leave the stage.
Bob Dylan had it right – “For the times, they are a changin’.”
I shared with Paul a terrifying gig of my own a few years ago.
I mistakenly thought I had been hired to play background music during the annual Thanksgiving dinner at a retirement home in Philadelphia.
No need to practice or prepare – every piano professional has a basic repertoire. When I’m sober, I can play over three hours – almost blindfolded.
Background music? Noooo problem. A pro can skillfully glide over any clinkers – sometimes I’m so intently watching guests I forget what key I’m playing in. I didn’t even bother to take music to the gig. You blend in – part of the wallpaper.
Prior to the dinner, I was fulfilling my day job as president and CEO of a suburban chamber of commerce. My staff and I were hosting a cocktail reception and I enjoyed casual conversation with chamber members.
I also enjoyed the wine. Quite a bit of wine, actually.
It’s true – the more cheap wine you drink, the better it tastes.
How much cheap wine did I consume? Enough.
When I got to the retirement home, I was shocked to learn that dinner was already over.
My complexion turned ashen. “Not background music during dinner?” I was hired to give guests a full-blown concert. Some 250 seniors and family members were eagerly awaiting their annual Thanksgiving entertainment – me! Yours truly.
I was one confused and nervous turkey. Ready to be roasted.
My first thought – Holy Mary, Mother of God. I’m not Catholic, but I was standing near Mary’s image and needed all the help I could get.
No prep? No practice? No play-list? YIKES!
Meanwhile, that cheap wine was starting to have an effect. I felt as if I had just entered The Twilight Zone, without a convenient escape hatch – I had been paid handsomely in advance.
Racking my wine-laced brain, I came up with a plan – involve the crowd and make the evening interactive. I’m good at engaging large groups in humorous repartee, something I do regularly in my position at the chamber.
I would start off with “As Time Goes By,” a song I can play easily – with or without too much wine. I entered stage left to sustained applause and held up my hands with dramatic flair … “1943 … the movie ‘Casablanca’ … Who remembers the great song from that movie?”
Nobody held up their hand. Total … dead … silence … and 250 blank, nervous faces.
Make that 251 blank, nervous faces. The natives looked restless and I began to sweat.
A man in the back seemed to flinch. “Yes – you sir. Yes, you! What were you doing in 1943?”
The man looked shocked to have been singled out. “Me? I wasn’t even born in 1943. I’m here with my mother.”
Open mouth, insert both feet.
Bloody good start, Mikey! Only 89 minutes to go.
Somehow, the piano-playing turkey muddled through the concert without being hit by buckshot. It would make for a better story if I had been, but honestly I was just glad to get out of Dodge alive – feathers still attached.
Amazingly, I stumbled through my repertoire with barely a glitch.
The audience eventually relaxed and seemed to enjoy the music. It was one helluva night for an old piano-bar lounge lizard. Somehow, my muddled brain and nervous fingers survived the night. It’s amazing what a human can do when facing a firing squad … and you have a strong desire to see the morning sunrise.
On a positive note, I was reminded of some life lessons. May I share a few?
Never assume anything … The Mother of God does not discriminate against non-Catholics … When hired to shoot, make sure you have ammo ... Prepare, don’t despair ... Stop drinking cheap wine when you’ve lost count.
And above all … when there’s a chance you might be scared witless?
Wear dark shorts.
Godspeed, my friends. Until next week!